Grieving Ukrainian widow hunts for answers amid mounting Russian 'war crimes'

In Ukraine, the graves are filling faster than the wheels of justice can turn, as ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports

We meet Nina by chance, outside the local council offices in Bucha, her home town that became a byword for brutality.

Just two weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Bucha became known as a scene of ferocious fighting. And in the aftermath of battle, for the atrocities visited on the civilian population.

This afternoon, Nina is making arrangements for her husband Serhii’s funeral. It will be the second time his body has been buried. First, he was laid to rest in a mass-grave. This time he will be afforded the rites due to the dead. Still, their two daughters will not attend.

Serhii with his daughters

"I don’t want this to be their last memory of their father," she explains.

Nina is a short, wiry woman in her early forties. Hair pulled back, her expression one of distilled determination. For three months, she sought answers. Why did her husband disappear? What was his fate? Where was he killed?

She is slowly putting together the story. She believes he was stopped at a Russian checkpoint. She thinks that perhaps the invading forces wanted to commandeer his minibus.

When Serhii's body was found, his eyes were looking up to the sky, Nina says

He was held for two or three days before the Russians shot him dead. It was not until many weeks later that she identified his body, and only then from pictures posted on social media by Ukrainian authorities after the invaders withdrew.

A few days after the funeral we went with her as she visited for the first time the scene of his execution.

‘’I can smell dead people here,’’ says Nina. She says there are more corpses beneath the ruins of a hotel where the Russians are believed to have tortured prisoners.

According to Ukraine's prosecutor general, Russia has so far:

  • committed 22,552 war crimes and 'crimes of aggression'

  • committed 10,948 'crimes against national security'

  • killed 347 children

  • injured 648 children

‘’It really hurts to be here and to feel him in life. How he was, still alive, and just a few seconds and he was dead.’’

She cannot hold back her tears. Nina has another question to add to the where, when and why of her husband’s murder. It's perhaps the toughest of all to answer. Who pulled the trigger?

We share her story with the woman whose job it is to bring the guilty to justice, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova.

Nina says there are corpses beneath the ruins of this hotel, in which the Russians are believed to have tortured prisoners.

She is investigating 600 murders in Bucha alone. Across the country as a whole, there are more than 21,000 cases. Some believe it is the biggest war crimes investigation ever.

"I work for Nina, and other Ukrainians," she tells me.

"And I cannot only promise, I can guarantee, I will do the most possible we can. The perpetrators will know what their fate will be. Their place is in jail."

Nina describes Ukrainian bodies riddled with bullets

In Bucha and the surrounding area, Ms Venedikta says, they have already 36 suspects; many in the country. The rest will be tried in absentia.

She won’t disclose when court hearings will begin, only that "we have begun the prosecutions". But the scale of the investigation is immense. Old crimes being discovered; new crimes committed with almost every Russian missile strike.

There has been plenty of international help, but Ms Venediktova says it isn’t enough.

"I need more support on the ground," she admits. "Investigators, prosecutors, experts in international human rights law, forensic experts, army experts. It’s a very complicated job.’’

Ukraine’s prosecutor general said she will 'never forgive' Russia's crimes against Ukrainian civilians

The task will take years, she says, long after the war ends.

As for Nina; she’s not so hopeful of justice. Instead, she’s learning to shoot a rifle, just in case the Russians ever return.

‘’It is impossible to find the man who shot my husband,’’ she says. ‘’I just hope they too are dead.’’

In Ukraine, the graveyards are filling faster than the wheels of justice can turn.

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